When I was a kid, I played with a Russian Matryoshka Doll. The doll cracked apart like an egg to reveal a second doll, then a third and so on. Each doll grew smaller, until the final doll was the size of a tiny bean. As science develops techniques to look deeper into the structure of reality, we find the universe is similar to a Matryoshka Doll— worlds are nested within worlds. All the objects around us, our world and our bodies are made of particles, minute dots of matter similar to the pixels on your computer screen. (“The Simulation Theory.”) In school, we learned to call these particles atoms, a word introduced by ancient Greek philosophers and adopted by modern physicists.
The first principles of the universe are atoms and empty space. Everything else is merely thought to exist. The worlds are unlimited. They come into being and perish. Nothing can come into being from that which is not, nor pass away into that which is not. Further, the atoms are unlimited in size and number, and they are borne along in the whole universe in a vortex, and thereby generate all composite things—-fire, water, air, earth. For even these are conglomerations of given atoms. And it is because of their solidarity that these atoms are impassive and unalterable. The sun and the moon have been composed of such smooth and spherical masses [i.e. atoms], and so also the soul, which is identical with reason. — Democritus (460 BC – 370 BC)
500 years before the birth of Christ, Greek philosophers such as Anaxagoras and Empedocles created models of existence using the elements of air, earth, fire and water and naming the opposing forces Love & Strife. Aristotle credited Leucippus and his student, Democritus for developing the concept of “atoms,” the smallest, indivisible particle. Most surviving quotes were attributed to Democritus, who reasoned that if you broke a piece of matter in half, then repeated the process, eventually you’d come to the ultimate piece of matter, the atom, which literally means uncuttable in Greek. Through the centuries, scientists pondered the theory until modern technology finally allowed us to open the Matryoshka Doll of particle physics.
On The Science Channel’s 7th episode of Through the Wormhole, Morgan Freeman asks the question “What are we made of?” and notes that, “Scientists have looked inside the atom and found that things are a lot more complicated.” In fact, the last century saw a renaissance in physics. In 1874, George Stoney developed the theory of the electron and estimated its mass. By 1898, Joseph Thompson measured the electron. And by 1911, Ernest Rutherford probed the atom’s structure.
One of the fun moments in Through the Wormhole is when Steve Nahn of MIT, a team leader at Cern, recreates Rutherford’s famous alpha-scattering experiment, streaming atoms through gold foil and observing how or if they scatter. In Rutherford’s initial experiment, some atoms bounced off the atomic nucleus while others penetrated the empty space surrounding the nucleus. Experiments like Rutherford’s were the beginning of a new kind of science and marked the birth of the age of Quantum Physics, mid-wived by such minds as Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger.
Although everything is made of atoms, modern scientists have come to understand the Universe subdivides into smaller and smaller units, just like the Matryoshka Doll. Atoms themselves are made up of subatomic particles; protons, neutrons and electrons. Some atoms can gain or lose electrons, (although the number of protons never changes in an atom. )
These differences, they say, are three: shape, arrangement, and position; because they hold that what is differs only in contour, inter-contact, inclination. — Democritus (460 BC – 370 BC)
One of the miracles of current science is that we are able to actually see many of these particles. At Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, Bob Stanek builds machines, allowing us to observe the subatomic world. The Advanced Photon Source Microscope or APS (which is half a mile around) can actually take pictures of objects 10,000 times smaller than what is visible to the naked eye. Now, molecules, viruses and atoms can be seen and photographed. Even traces of previously theoretical particles such as quarks can be detected. (The APS just released an unprecedented view of nano-particles growing from their earliest stages of formation.)
Another way to observe particles is through particle accelerators, commonly called atom smashers. Although particles smash, flare into existence and disappear all the time, atoms can be artificially accelerated at Fermi Lab or Geneva’s Large Hadron Collider at Cern. There, atoms are smashed under controlled conditions, leaving clues of how reality is glued together. At first, accelerators found such a dazzling array of particles with so many strange properties, they called their collection of new species the Particle Zoo. Then in 1964 quarks were proposed as components of hadrons and a lot of the zoo members were sub-divided into species of quarks including up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom quarks. A few species were types of neutrinos and leptons, so that cut down on the mayhem. Theoretically, everything in the Universe is made from twelve fundamental particles and governed by four fundamental forces
Democritus seems to have been channeling this future event (The Particle Zoo) when he observes that “They (atoms) have all sorts of shapes and appearances and different sizes…. Some are rough, some hook-shaped, some concave, some convex and some have other innumerable variations.”
Form is emptiness, Emptiness is form
“As your insight into the ultimate nature of reality is deepened and enhanced, you will develop a perception of reality from which you will perceive phenomena and events as sort of illusory, illusion-like, and this mode of perceiving reality will permeate all your interactions with reality. […] Even emptiness itself, which is seen as the ultimate nature of reality, is not absolute, nor does it exist independently. We cannot conceive of emptiness as independent of a basis of phenomena, because when we examine the nature of reality, we find that it is empty of inherent existence. Then if we are to take that emptiness itself is an object and look for its essence, again we will find that it is empty of inherent existence. Therefore the Buddha taught the emptiness of emptiness.” —14th Dalai Lama
For thousands of years, the Buddhists have described emptiness stating that everything we see is an illusion. The things around us only appear to have form and solidity when reality they are made of emptiness. And so particle physicists and Buddhists are in agreement. What about the distances between these fractional particles? As the Buddhists observed— our bodies and objects around us are mostly empty space, in fact, atoms are 99.999999999999% empty space. Our appearance of solidity is an illusion. Our electromagnetic field comes in contact with other electromagnetic fields, and like two repulsing magnets creates the sensation of solidity.
Far away, in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each eye of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now look closely at any one of the jewels for inspection, we will discover that in its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflection process occurring.This symbolizes our world where every sentient being (and thing) is inter-related to one another — Avatamsaka Sutra
Buddhists also believe that everything is connected and inter-dependent, that we experience an illusion of separation or duality, when in reality, everything arises from one source.
There is no place in this new kind of physics (for) both the field and matter, for the field is the only reality—Albert Einstein.
According to Einstein, the particles that arise from the field are not separate from the field. The Quantum Field is like a vast ocean of fluctuating emptiness where particles arise and “disappear” or more accurately transform, appearing in different states depending on observational context. For example, an electron can appear as a particle, a wave or a “cloud” around an atomic nucleus. All particles change states. According to Fennyman, the electron could follow all possible trajectories at once and according to the The Uncertainty Principle, applying a definite path to microscopic particles is a meaningless construct. Heisenberg’s original formulation states that we can know the position of a particle or its momentum, but never both at the same time. The observational context is what dictates the state of the particle.
“The universe appears to consist of discrete objects that have an existence from their own side. These objects appear to exist in themselves as stars, planets, mountains, people, cars, and so forth, all ‘waiting’ to be experienced by conscious beings. Normally it does not occur to us that we are involved in anyway in the existence of these phenomena. [. . .] As we shall see, the truth is very different.” —Geshe Kalsang Gyatso
Higgs Boson: The Golden Snitch
Physicists are a lot like Indiana Jones. They travel into unfamiliar territory holding a map drawn from speculation and logic. When they actually see the mountains or the rivers they suspected were there, they get excited. As experiments confirm different landmarks on the map, they refine the map and add to it. In this case, the map is called The Standard Model Theory. Although this model is not a Unified Field Theory, (it can’t account for gravity, for example) it has still been an excellent guide, predicting a lot of phenomena. Developed in the early 1970s, it has successfully explained a host of experimental results and precisely predicted a wide variety of phenomena.
But the most important feature on the map, the hidden object everyone wants to find, is the Higgs Boson— popularly referred to as The God Particle. What all these physicists are actually chasing is a theoretical particle that would bequeath the mass needed to glue reality together. Mass and gravity determine weight and without the Higgs Boson, why particles clump together in empty space is a real question. The famous analogy posted at Cern for the Higgs Boson goes like this:
“Imagine you’re at a Hollywood party. The crowd is rather thick, and evenly distributed around the room, chatting. When the big star arrives, the people nearest the door gather around her. As she moves through the party, she attracts the people closest to her, and those she moves away from return to their other conversations. By gathering a fawning cluster of people around her, she’s gained momentum, an indication of mass. She’s harder to slow down than she would be without the crowd. Once she’s stopped, it’s harder to get her going again.”
The existence of the Higgs Boson would also indicate the presence of a new kind of Quantum Field that permeates existence and may be the basis of reality itself.